Merde in europe, p.21
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       Merde in Europe, p.21

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘Europe Avenir,’ Manon and I chorused. So it was Elodie.

  ‘Are you going to put out a press release to counter this?’ I asked.

  ‘No. I told you, the DG doesn’t bother on individual issues. But I can help you write one, and advise you on how to get it out there to the right people.’

  ‘That would be excellent,’ Manon said.

  ‘Right.’ Peter seemed to be thinking something over. ‘OK, before we get down to business, I couldn’t have a coffee, could I? Skinny latte? I’m parched.’

  ‘Sure, I’ll get you one,’ I said.

  ‘No, I’ll go,’ Manon offered.

  ‘Glad she went,’ Peter said quietly, when Manon had left. ‘So you’re helping the French against the French? Are you sure you know what’s going on here?’

  ‘I think so.’

  ‘I’m never sure we can trust them at the best of times, never mind when they’re at each other’s throats. Don’t want to get hit in the crossfire. Or crossblades, or whatever.’

  ‘I think I can trust Manon. She’s French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.’ I looked over to where she was ordering at the bar. She turned and smiled back brightly, the kind of woman you wanted to trust.

  ‘Wow. Ministry, eh? Big guns,’ Peter said. ‘And are you sure you want to help them influence the vote? You might be adding a lot of weight to the “yes” campaign. Is that something you want to do?’

  Like I said, this had been giving me twinges of conscience.

  ‘I’m all in favour of staying in,’ Peter went on. ‘If all the Poles got kicked out of the UK and went to Germany, nothing would ever get built in Britain again. Not on time, anyway. And without EU workers, all the restaurants in London would be self-service, and all the hotels would insist on DIY bed-making. Plus the NHS would lose half its nurses. But don’t forget that there are equally valid reasons for getting out. Freedom to pass our own laws. Immigrant quotas. All that. So are you really sure about what you want to do?’

  I considered this.

  ‘We’ll just be giving people an even playing field,’ I said. ‘I don’t think we can stop Elodie coming out with her bullshit. So let’s give people some alternative bullshit. Then they can decide whose smells better.’

  ‘OK, fair enough. Then I’m your man. As long as you’re sure we can trust the French.’

  ‘Yes,’ I said.

  I just prayed it was true.

  21

  ‘New Brussels law: worn-out sex toys must be given back to retailers.’

  Report in the British press, 2004

  I DON’T KNOW who in the design world decided that chic modern bars and restaurants should have entirely square furniture. The occasional spherical lightshade is OK, it seems, but everything else – tables, chairs, the bar, even plates – has to have right-angles. You’re lucky if you get your drinks served in glasses without corners.

  Elodie had arranged to meet me in one of these places, a hotel restaurant that also went in for absurdly dimmed lighting and music that was probably meant to sound cool, but just made me want to go and smash the computer that had generated it.

  There was, of course, a sultry woman in painfully high heels, whose only job was to check your DNA against the list of reservations and make sure you weren’t uninvited.

  The restaurant was divided into three sections – a long mirrored bar, which seemed to be where the anorexics sat for their liquid dinner; a large open section with a chequerboard of tables; and a corner with a dozen or so discreet booths where you needed night-vision glasses to check that you were meeting the right person.

  Predictably, and scarily, Elodie had booked a table here. I arrived on time, and followed the woman in high heels to a booth, guiding myself for the last few metres by the sound of her shoes on the floor. I slotted myself in between a square table and a rectangular leather bench seat. Despite the gloom, I could see that there was no one else at the table.

  A waiter, or it might have been a waitress with a deep voice, asked me in French whether I would like a drink while I waited for Madame. To match the linguistic mood, I ordered a ‘coupe de Champagne’. Connoisseurs will know that this is not a teacup full of fizzy wine. ‘Coupe’ is the name of an open, rounded champagne glass. And it always puzzles me why French restaurants invariably serve a ‘coupe’ in a tall, slim ‘flûte’. But maybe that’s just because I’m turning Parisian.

  Being French, Elodie was twenty minutes late. And being Parisian, she didn’t apologise.

  I stood up to welcome her (once I’d recognised her through the darkness), and we kissed on both cheeks as we wished each other ‘Bonsoir’. It was all feeling very ceremonial. But then both of us were acting out a ceremony of sorts – the prelude to dropping each other in the proverbial merde.

  ‘Is that champagne, Paul? Are we celebrating something?’

  ‘I don’t know yet.’

  It was meant to be an ironic reference to my undercover revenge campaign, but it probably came out more like a plea for sex.

  ‘Well, maybe I need a glass, too, then. Will you order it for me, Paul?’

  The man ordering the drink? We were getting even more ceremonial, I thought. I ought to have kissed her hand when she arrived. Or rather, as the truly posh Frenchmen do, held her hand close to my lips and pretended to kiss it.

  Hypocritically, I complimented her on her choice of restaurant.

  ‘Oh, I’m staying in this hotel at the moment. It’s convenient.’

  ‘That must be expensive. Don’t you have a longer-term apartment?’

  ‘Yes, Paul, but you’re staying there.’

  ‘Oh.’

  She’d told me that diplomats usually lived in the Art Nouveau apartment. Had she forgotten about this earlier lie?

  ‘It was either you or me in the hotel,’ she went on, ‘and I decided that I deserved a couple of weeks of luxury.’

  ‘I just hope Valéry won’t turn up at the flat on a surprise visit and get the wrong idea about me being in your bed.’

  ‘He wouldn’t dare!’ Elodie laughed. I gathered that Monsieur was trained to obey orders, like everyone else in her life. Everyone except – for the past few hours, at least – me.

  ‘How’s Valéry doing?’

  ‘As well as the last time you asked, Paul, about a day ago. I didn’t know you were so worried about him. Which reminds me – have you seen Cédric recently?’

  ‘Not since yesterday. He said he wasn’t feeling too good.’

  ‘Honestly, that family! They have an immune system as strong as the fences around the Channel Tunnel.’

  Elodie clearly wasn’t the nursemaid type. But I knew that Cédric wasn’t suffering from anything life-threatening. To prevent gaffes on his part, I’d suggested that he go off sick. A true French worker, he’d taken me at my word and gone to a doctor to get himself a month’s ‘stress leave’. He was probably sitting in his flat browsing a website of cousins he might be able to marry.

  We ordered food from a menu that seemed to contain nothing but flame-grilled, a la plancha and gluten-free, with a bottle of white wine. French, bien sûr. A Pouilly-Fumé, which – despite its name – has not been smoked. But then, of course, neither is there any mutton in a Mouton Rothschild.

  ‘So everything’s going ahead as you planned?’ I asked Elodie.

  It was too dark to see whether she looked embarrassed as she replied that it was. I’d have to ask the waiter for a torch if I wanted to analyse her facial expressions. There was a candle in a (square) bowl on the table, but apparently it was only lit on request.

  ‘Press release done?’ I pressed her.

  ‘Yes, all done, Paul. Don’t worry, I know how to organise things. And how do you think your compatriots will vote?’

  Even in the near-blackness I was sure I detected a look of self-satisfaction on her face. Her smugness was so strong it was generating light.

  ‘Oh, the polls are too close to call,’ I replied, as usual. ‘For the moment, anyway.’

&
nbsp; ‘Anything could happen, n’est-ce pas?’

  Elodie held up her wine glass and we clinked, each of us no doubt smiling at our own interpretation of the toast. It was, if I got it right, an ‘I-know-what-you-think-you-know-and-I-don’t-but-I-think-I-know-something-you-don’t’ moment. From my point of view, anyway.

  ‘I invited you to dinner to thank you, Paul,’ she said. ‘Even though it’s been a short job, you’ve helped me more than you can imagine.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘Oh . . .’

  I understood more than ever the importance of the darkness. Surely even Elodie must be betraying some signs of guilt about shafting one of her old friends?

  ‘In many ways,’ she finally said. ‘But whatever happens, you’ll be getting a nice fat payment to thank you for your help.’

  ‘What do you mean, “whatever happens”?’ I asked, as innocently as possible.

  ‘You know, a delay with the funding, that sort of thing. Brussels is a complex place, lots of broken promises.’

  That was the biggest understatement I’d ever heard from her.

  ‘It must make your job difficult,’ I said. ‘Do you enjoy it? Do you get a sense of doing something worthwhile?’

  She laughed.

  ‘Oh, are you becoming anti-European, Paul? Don’t you think that MEPs are useful?’

  Perhaps it was a serious question, and if I’d answered, ‘No, I think you’re all a bunch of wasters getting a free ride on a gravy train paid for by my taxes, and some of you forget who’s paying your wages and spend your whole time undermining Europe,’ maybe she would have come clean. But I had a serious question of my own.

  ‘I mean, does what you’re doing fit in with your beliefs about Europe? What are your beliefs exactly?’

  Elodie made a puffing noise, as though ‘belief’ was a joke in her very own minority language.

  ‘It’s really tough being an MEP, Paul. Everyone wants to influence you – lobbyists, other MEPs, the party back home in France. Consultants and journalists want to know what you think about every subject they can think of. And you must never forget the electors. What will they want you to think and say before the next election? So sometimes I don’t know what I believe.’

  ‘That must be slightly inconvenient whenever you have to vote on a new law?’

  She laughed. ‘All I know, Paul, and you must believe me – whatever happens during your referendum – is that I want what is best for France and for Europe. In that order, admittedly.’

  Merde alors, I thought. She’s actually being sincere. I ought to note the date and time in my diary.

  We ate and drank. The food was good, and in surprisingly generous portions. This was probably the Belgian element to the restaurant’s design.

  ‘Now to your personal problem,’ Elodie said, after delicately wiping her lips with her napkin. ‘Women. Are there any in this restaurant that you like?’

  ‘No.’ I didn’t even bother turning around to look. Mainly because I wouldn’t have been able to see any, except for the illuminated silhouettes at the bar.

  ‘Oh no – you’re not going to say that I’m the only one you want to look at, are you, Paul?’

  ‘No, I’m not that French.’

  ‘Thank God for that. But why can’t you find yourself a woman? You’re not a bad-looking guy. Sweet, sort of naive.’ (Yes, I thought, naivety had been my greatest quality, where she was concerned.) ‘Women adore that. Except if they’re Manon, of course.’ Elodie laughed. ‘Maybe she’s in love with my papa, and he’s been telling her nasty things about you. He’s probably sleeping with her and her mother.’

  I might have defended Manon against this slur if we hadn’t been interrupted.

  ‘Elodie?’

  There was a shadow standing by our table. All I could see of it was an elegantly trousered groin.

  ‘Let me help you,’ a male voice said.

  A hand dipped into view, followed by a second of similar size and colour. They flicked a match against a small matchbox, and after a brief spit and fizzle, our candle was emitting light. I blinked a few times and looked up into a face I knew.

  I could see that Elodie recognised it too, and that she was shocked.

  ‘Gustav?’

  It was the dunking Dane. Although, having done some research, I now knew that he was Swedish.

  ‘I didn’t know you were dining here tonight, Elodie,’ he said. He didn’t look bothered by this. It was just an observation.

  ‘Yes, well, I . . .’ Elodie’s reply petered out as she caught sight of a female figure who now came into view, and whose hand Gustav clasped possessively.

  ‘Manon?’ she said.

  22

  ‘EU wants all condoms to be of uniform size – small.’

  Report in the British press, 2000

  I HAD BEEN play-acting for most of that dinner with Elodie, hamming it up as her innocent victim.

  But seeing Manon’s hand clutched by the Swedish seducer in the dim light of the restaurant elicited my first non-acted reaction of the evening, a twisting of the upper intestine that made me grit my teeth.

  It was no consolation to remind myself that I had set up the whole scene.

  I had contacted Danny the oyster man and reminded him of that first night at Plux when he’d given me the evil eye. I described the Dane (as I thought he was) who’d been in the bar, and asked if Danny knew him. He didn’t, he said, but he could ask around. Less than half an hour later he came back with a name, a phone number and a new nationality. Gustav the Swede.

  Vive the Brussels high-speed networking network.

  I’d phoned Gustav and asked if I could come and see him, explaining that it was a ‘delicate matter concerning Elodie’. This had caught his attention. I went over to his office, which was on the centre-left side of the Parliament building, where most of the Scandinavians seemed to be, except the Viking supremacy extremists.

  He turned out to be a virulent pro-European, full of pity for his Norwegian neighbours who opted out of the EU and now found themselves obliged to apply EU trading laws anyway, if they wanted to do business with Europe.

  He was also very much in favour of keeping Britain in the EU, so that it could, as he put it, ‘accept its full share of our common responsibilities at this difficult time’. I was secretly pleased to see that someone so smooth and handsome could come out with dull politician’s clichés.

  Once Gustav heard about Elodie’s plans to sabotage the vote in favour of a Brexit, she seemed to drop down several places on his sex-friend chart. He immediately agreed to my plan: he would turn up at the restaurant that night and ‘surprise’ Elodie dining with me.

  Admittedly, my main reason for doing this to Elodie was spite. It had nothing to do with the referendum, except that I thought it might be good to destabilise her and get her thinking about non-political matters on the day before the vote. I wanted to knock her off her self-satisfied perch.

  But it was also a promise to Cédric. Valéry was his big brother, after all, and he’d confided in me that he was sick of seeing Elodie ‘se foutre de la gueule du monde’, as he put it, which more or less translates as ‘fucking everyone’s face’, but means something less violent – taking the piss.

  Cédric had begged me to try and mess up Elodie’s Scandinavian fling. In return, he was willing to guarantee his silence about my messing up her propaganda campaign. He seemed to be forgetting the blackmail hold we had on him, but I agreed anyway.

  ‘The only question is: Why would I be in the restaurant alone?’ Gustav had asked me, and when I suggested that he invite a woman along, he replied that he wouldn’t be able to find a date at such short notice.

  This was almost certainly a lie, but it was also a challenge. He wanted me to set him up with some new tottie.

  ‘Why not Elodie’s other assistant, for example?’ he said. I guessed he didn’t mean Cédric.

  To my annoyance, Manon agreed
all too easily. And I couldn’t really object.

  But when I saw them standing together at the restaurant, I found myself asking: Did she really have to hold Gustav’s hand?

  It took all my self-discipline not to call Manon when I got back to the apartment after dinner with Elodie. It would have looked as though I was checking up on her. Which of course I would have been.

  And the fact that Manon didn’t phone to check up on me only made things worse. Did she no longer care whether I slept with Elodie? Or was she too busy doing Stockholm somersaults?

  I would have liked to consult Jake on the matter. Where sex was concerned, he had been through every complication known to humankind. But he wasn’t at the apartment and when I called him, he replied breathlessly that he couldn’t talk: ‘I’m in full invasion of the empire Austro-Hungarian.’ It didn’t take much imagination to guess what that meant.

  Of course I didn’t go up to Elodie’s hotel room after dinner, even though she put on a great show of seductive play-acting, all for Gustav’s benefit. Once he and Manon had gone to their table, she leant towards me as we spoke and kept her face in the candlelight, probably knowing that the flickering flame picked out the gold in her hair and the pearls at her throat. And when we left the table, she gripped my arm and swayed against me as though our hips were beginning the foreplay on our way upstairs.

  But once we were in the lobby she brusquely wished me a ‘Bonne fin de soirée’ and suggested that I go and solve my problems at a ‘bordel’. Then she was striding towards the lift, no doubt on her way to the minibar. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

  It was of course me who gave in and called next morning. The day before the referendum.

  ‘Bonjour, Manon.’

  ‘Bonjour, Paul.’

  ‘Ça va?’

  ‘Oui très bien, et toi?’

  ‘Bien, merci.’

  We spend so long asking what we don’t really want to know.

  ‘How did it go with Gustav?’ I finally asked.

  ‘Oh, very well. He’s très sympathique.’

  ‘Yes, très.

 
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